If The Face of Love proves anything, it is that Annette Bening is still one of the finest American actors working today. In Arie Posin’s new drama, which boasts shades of Douglas Sirk and an attempted Hitchcockian suspense, she gives everything to the role of Nikki Lostrom, a lonesome widow who pursues a relationship with a man who has an uncanny resemblance to her late husband.
In the opening scene, Nikki sits, sullen and anguished, by the pool of her immaculate Los Angeles home, gripping a glass of wine as she remembers finding her husband Garrett (Ed Harris) dead, strewn on the beach after drowning during a trip to Mexico. Distracted by these harrowing memories, she drops the wine glass. Picking up the pieces of broken glass, Nikki does not even grimace, even when she grips the shards so tightly her hand starts bleeding. Bening is a fearless actor mining remarkable depth in a performance that ought to have been in a better film, one that was more psychologically compelling and without the mawkish, meandering melodrama.
Five years after her husband’s death, Nikki still mourns Garrett. A neighbour and friend, Roger (a restrained Robin Williams), offers her company and attempts to court her, but Nikki is not ready to move on. However, when she heads back to the art gallery she used to visit with Garrett, Nikki finds something even more evocative than the paintings. She sees a man with features strikingly similar to Garrett’s wandering around the museum. His name is Tom, he is an art instructor at a local college and Ed Harris plays him too, although with a few facial tweaks to look different from the flashbacks near the start.
Nikki asks Tom for some private art tutoring and he quickly falls for her. While she hides from him the details about her late husband, initially telling Tom that Garrett divorced her and not explaining that he looks exactly like Tom, he also hides details about an illness. And, herein lies the problem with The Face of Love: so much of the drama relies on these characters trying their hardest to fool the other, that it is hard to feel much sympathy for either of them.
Posin, who wrote the screenplay with Matthew McDuffie (A Cool, Dry Place), has trouble balancing the off-kilter story with precious, schmaltzy dialogue. The drama meanders as Nikki avoids confronting the truth with Tom, although bump-ins with Roger and daughter Summer (a strong but underused Jess Weixler) add to the tension. There is only so much dramatic irony one can take, however, before it replaces the momentum of the drama altogether.
The director, making his first film since 2005’s The Chumscrubber, owes some of his story to both Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, although the suspense and sensuality is more muted than in those classics. As soon as Tom teaches Nikki how to paint, breathing life into her empty existence, the film looks more like a Techni-coloured dream, standing in striking opposition to the gray-skied, dreary looking flashbacks at the start. (In the scene when Nikki finds her husband’s body on the beach, she is also wrapped in a rose red outfit, a Sirki-ian touch.) As any painter would, Posin starts using more colour as the melodrama become lusher; however, with such deceitful characters, the romance is a hard one to root for and the suspense drags on for so long that it is no longer thrilling.
At its core, The Face of Love is an intriguing look at one woman’s peculiar handling of grieving over her dead husband. Bening gives the performance all of the nuances it could handle, even if much of the rest of the material is subpar. She is stunning, especially in two scenes. The first is a minute-long take of her first encounter with Tom. She arrives at his college and asks, awkwardly, if she can take a class. As he speaks to her sympathetically, she becomes more flustered until she is so bereft of composure she dashes out of the room. Here, as her character confronts this uncanny double of her late husband, she realizes the deep water she could tread into by involving herself with this man – and Nikki does not yet have the stamina to commit to him.
In another moment, she visits Tom’s house and is startled (and somewhat dismayed) at his wall of photos with friends and family. Both characters share completely different histories and Nikki has to adapt to looking at Tom on his own terms, separate from Garrett. Both of these scenes show the struggle her character has with encountering the past as well as trying to move on from it, and Bening does so with deep emotional intensity. The actress is best at wordless scenes – take the dinner scene when she realizes her wife is cheating on her in The Kids are All Right, or her bawling after failing to sell a house near the start of American Beauty. Bening delivers an all-encompassing pain and insecurity as she deals with loss and tries to figure out how to explain the truth to Tom.
However, it is suspicious as to why Nikki is so interested in falling in love with Tom, when she knows sharing him with friends and family would only cause more alarm and confusion, as well as betray the truth of how uncannily he resembles her late husband. The character is the victim of a screenplay that does not feel convincing or thought out in detail.
Meanwhile, Williams gives earned pathos to an undernourished character, while Harris seems just as undervalued. As Tom falls even deeper in love with Nikki, he ends up as a character used more like a prop to occupy her time and rid her of insecurity in the wake of her husband’s death than a credible, realized person. When he tells Nikki, “I could take a bath in how you look happy,” you just wish the story would fast-forward from soapy romance to the difficult reveal and the conflicted emotions that would arise from the circumstances.
As a showcase for one of the finest American actors, The Face of Love is almost worth recommending. However, Bening is just not quite able to transcend the stilted material, which doesn’t know how to generate an authentic glimpse of grieving and loss like the actor can. Furthermore, Posin’s script relies almost entirely on dramatic irony to maintain suspense, but the off-kilter edges of this strange story are dulled by the meandering pace of the central romance. Despite some strong performances, it is hard to root for characters who keep walking in circles to avoid confronting the truth.
The Face of Love is a stilted and soapy melodrama that almost works due to some stellar performances from Annette Bening and Ed Harris.